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That’s ‘associate’ to you

July 26, 2017 -  By

ESOP General Manager Chris Graeber speaks at Garden Design’s annual employee-ownership certificate presentation. Photos: Garden Design

Be careful, landscape business owners. Garden Design’s story shows how a disrespected employee may end up as a successful crosstown rival. 

Andrew Haynes’ business card reads associate, not owner, CEO or founder of Garden Design in Farmers Branch, Texas, though at one point in time he’s been all those things. And don’t let him hear you calling his coworkers his employees. They’re associates, too. It says so right there in the company’s “Associate Handbook.”

Haynes’ distaste for the word employee stems from an event that was the catalyst for his leaving a sales position at a high-end commercial landscape company that’s now a competitor in the Dallas market and starting his own company in 1991.

Haynes was selling a million dollars a year. He was extensively patted on the back by his employer and promised a cut of the profit. He felt like an integral part of the company. But that feeling dissipated at a public event the next day when his boss introduced him as, simply, “one of his employees.” “That’s all I am to you,” he thought. And that was before he realized he’d never see the winnings he’d been promised.

“I understood that I worked for them, and I appreciated that, but I was the one making it rain,” he said. “I thought I was more than just an employee.”

In that moment, years before Haynes built a company that now pulls in $59 million doing mostly design/build+installation for a 60/40 commercial/residential clientele, the populist company owner realized the key to a successful green industry business was people.

“I can do this on my own better, faster and more profitably,” he remembers saying to himself. “There was a lot of business to be had if I could get people moving in the same direction.”

Whether it’s taking more than a year to build a team before breaking ground on the first project or going 100-percent employee owned three years ago, Haynes’ idea of an associate’s role in a company, and the way that associate should be treated, remains the core of the company today.

In an industry where the owner-employee (or associate) relationship is often strained, Garden Design is proof that a people-centric approach can pay off.

“It’s all about your people,” he said. “If you don’t have great associates, you can’t have a great organization.”

People are the cornerstone

The people-centric approach started on day one.

Haynes left his employer within a week of the aforementioned epiphany and started Garden Design (then called Metroplex Garden Design Landscaping) in 1991, but the company didn’t build its first project until 1993. Many companies in the green industry start bare bones, with many owners of infant companies taking on the administrative, marketing, labor and any other roles that need filling to get the job done. Haynes took a different approach.

“If you start with some people who don’t have the same values, norms, ideas and outlooks, you’re not going to get where everybody wants to be,” he says.

Instead, Haynes decided to build a strong team from day one. His most important get was Ken Coggins, Haynes’ college roommate, who remains his business partner today. Coggins handled the behind-the-scenes business deals with entities like nurseries, and Haynes managed sales and design.

“That core group has always stayed together, which is unusual in our industry,” Haynes says. “We’ve only lost one or two really good people that I wish I had back. One moved out of town and one passed away.”

Project insight After some training, Garden Design staffers understand which projects are profitable. Photos: Garden Design

Trust was the key ingredient Haynes looked for when building his team, and it’s what he continues to look for when recruiting new employees today. To Haynes, trust doesn’t equal utility or versatility, and it doesn’t equal genius. Trust is knowing something is going to get done correctly so other associates can focus on getting their own jobs done. The irrigation technician doesn’t need to know how to balance a spreadsheet, but a manager should be able to trust the person whose job it is to properly install a sprinkler head to do so every time.

“Not everyone fully understands each phase of the business,” he says. “We’ve just got a lot of people who do what they do and do it right.”

Employee owners

About a decade ago, Haynes and Coggins began pondering the future of Garden Designs. Each in their 50s, they knew they couldn’t run the company forever, but its continued existence and their associates’ careers were important to them.

When they began looking into options like selling the company, these opportunities ensured the continuation of the name but not necessarily the people-centric culture they’d created. So, they settled on an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).

“(Our associates) have dedicated their professional lives to us,” he says. “We at least owe them the opportunity at a shot at ownership.”

This decision meant a few things. For one, it meant long-term employees had a chance to receive stock in the company. But it also meant that the company’s fate was in the hands of the employees.

Part of the ESOP process meant adopting an open-book management style. But an open book doesn’t do much if many of the employees don’t understand what they’re looking at. It became essential for employees to understand how the company ticks. This spurred a training and knowledge initiative throughout the company. Haynes and Co. implemented a cross-training program to get each employee familiar with different aspects of the business. Salespeople spent time on job sites, and crew members learned about the sales process.

“In the past, (salespeople) would write up an order to replace a tree or something and they would have know idea what happens when they do that; they had no idea what they were talking about,” Haynes says. “Now (because) they go out, they understand what our business does. If everyone knows what we’re doing, than everybody can pull in the same direction.”

Last year, all employees took classes on entrepreneurship and business ownership. Some low-level associates, who would be lucky to receive training on a mower at many companies, were learning about profits and gross margins.

“What totally shocked me when we opened up books and let everybody know what we do as a group was that the average person didn’t know what a profit is,” he says. “So, we taught everyone what it is to make a profit, how we make a profit and what is most profitable for us.”

The biggest benefit from all this education came in the form of employee engagement. Business Development and Marketing Manager Courtney Plaeger says having a stake in the company and having one’s opinion respected by everyone on the structural chart changes the way employees approach work.

“You don’t realize how much of a difference it makes going to work every day knowing that you’re working for a goal that doesn’t just put money in someone else’s pocket,” Plaeger says. “It gives us incentive to want to stay here and make (the company) better.”

Haynes has seen his employees’ mindsets change. Since going down this road, employees on the lowest level of the company’s organizational chart have offered up ways to improve the product, cut costs and become more efficient.

“Not all the ideas are workable, but at least we’ve got them thinking about it,” Haynes says. “It’s made our group interested again, and now everyone pulls towards the same direction because we all know what the bonus structure is.”

You better believe everybody is watching the gross margin and net profit percentages. Everyone has an interest in making good numbers now.”

While the company looks different today from the one Haynes started in 1993, the core values that serve as its bedrock—cohesiveness and respect—keep Garden Design striving towards a common goal.

“If everyone knows what we’re there for, the better we communicate, the better our product and services will be, and the better we’ll be as a group,” Haynes says.

Photos: Garden Design

This article is tagged with and posted in 0717, Design/Build+Installation, Featured

About the Author:

Dillon Stewart graduated from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, earning a Bachelor of Science in Online Journalism with specializations in business and political science. Stewart is a former associate editor of LM.

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